Although I don't play tennis anymore, I spend the Grand Slam season . Whether I'm watching the clay courts of Roland Garros, the grass courts of Wimbledon or the hard courts of Flushing Meadows, I'm a slave to my guy, Rafael "Rafa" Nadal.
That's why I'm grief-stricken.
Nadal's losses to Novak Djokovic in all but Roland Garros this season (Djokovic was beaten by Roger Federer in the French Open semi-finals) still have me desolate. Not only did Nadal lose three Grand Slam finals to Djokovic, he lost his No. 1 ATP ranking.
Not that you can feel too sorry for Nadal. Along with the 2008 Olympic Gold Medal for singles, he has won ten Grand Slams—including six French Open titles—earning him the nickname "The King of Clay." His take-home prize money this year alone is $5,289,818. (Djokovic earned $8,285,418, wouldn't you know.)
Still, after Nadal's repeated losses to the lanky Serbian, I began to wonder if my guy would be summed up as washed-up at 25?
Now that I've read Nadal's new biography, Rafa, I have hope reborn.
Nadal wrote the book with John Carlin, author of the Nelson Mandela story that became the feature film Invictus.
Beginning with a first-person narrative based on Nadal's victory over Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon Final—which many called the greatest tennis match of the modern era—and ending with Nadal's 2010 Wimbledon win over Novak Djokovic, the book alternates chapters with third-person accounts of his life.
In reliving the two matches almost shot for shot, Nadal replays the whip-speed thought process that accompanied every point. But physical prowess—the ripping cross-court forehand and two-handed backhand—is not what sets him apart from other players.
It's the cocooning web of family and tennis professionals, along with a set of pre-game rituals, that combine to make Nadal possibly the greatest tennis player of all time.
Goliath Djokovic's year aside (he had the longest winning streak in tennis history), there is no one quite like Nadal, a Grand Slam champion who sleeps with the light on because he is afraid of the dark, who doesn’t like dogs or trust animals, and won't eat ham or cheese.
On the plus side, he loves Nutella, Real Madrid (the soccer, uh, football team) and—since 2005—an extremely private Majorcan beauty, Maria Francisca Perello.
Oh, yes, and he loves his family, which includes Coach Toni Nadal (known throughout the tennis world as "Uncle Toni") and a tight-knit team of eight professionals that form his entourage, one that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Mark Wahlberg-produced TV show.
You won't find scandal, drugs or bad-mouthing of other players among Nadal's camp, which includes, among others, agent Carlos Costa, physical therapist Rafael Maymo, physical trainer Joan Forcades, and Nike handler and close friend Jordi "Tuts" Robert.
They all travel with him, sharing hotels and the same rented house every year at Wimbledon, where they play rowdy PlayStation games and enjoy boistrous meals that Nadal prepares.
Cooking and playing PlayStation games help him take his mind off up-coming matches.
First and foremost, however, is family.
Parents Sebastian and Ana Maria, sister Maribel (they text several times a day when he is on tour), and a panoply of uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents define Nadal's universe, one centered on the Mediterranean island of Majorca, Spain, where his family has lived for generations.
"My immediate family, my extended family and my professional team … create the environment of affection and trust I need to allow my talent to flower," he writes.
Born in the resort town of Manacor on June 3, 1986, Nadal says he will never live anywhere else. It is not surprising he chose a girl from his hometown. The ultra-reserved Maria Francisca Perello, who shuns all interviews, has a degree in business administration and prefers to hold down a full time job rather than exist in Nadal's reflected limelight. She only recently started attending his matches.
Manacor is also the one place on earth Nadal can shop for groceries (he buys huge amounts of olives), go to clubs (he loves to dance but rarely drinks alcohol) and simply walk down the street without being mobbed by press and autograph hunters.
Where Majorcans are known for respecting people’s privacy and refusing to make an unnecessary fuss, Rafa's family, friends and team take these traits to an extreme.
The less-is-more attitude surrounding Nadal has to do with Uncle Toni and the somewhat abusive way he coached his nephew as a child, slamming tennis balls into his chest when he appeared to daydream, forcing him to pick up every ball at the end of training sessions with other boys and barely acknowledging his wins.
Even later, when Nadal won the French Open in 2005 at age 19, Toni left him a handwritten note listing all the things he had done wrong.
Don't expect Nadal to complain about Uncle Toni in his book. "If I hadn't loved playing the game, I wouldn't have put up with my uncle," he writes.
A consummate gentleman whose mother drummed into him from an early age "the importance of treating everybody with respect," Nadal credits his uncle with imbuing him with the superhuman toughness necessary for a game that is as much mental as it is physical.
Along with his family and team, Rafa leans obsessively on his set-in-stone pre-match routines: a meal of plain pasta and a piece of fish; violent exercise (his trainer calls it activating his "explosiveness"); the massage; the headphones and upbeat music, and the freezing cold shower.
"Under the cold shower I enter a new space in which I feel my power and resilience grow," he says about the practices that provide a sense of structure before entering the court. "I'm a different man when I emerge."
On the court, things like taking a sip of water from one bottle, then another, and then placing the bottles just so at his feet help him order his surroundings "to match the order I seek in my head," he says.
"Some call it superstition, but it's not," he writes. "If it were superstition, why would I keep doing the same thing over and over whether I win or lose?"
Although he fails to mention anything about the elaborate gestures that always precede his serve, Nadal says, contrary to widespread opinion, he is the one who decided to play left-handed, not Uncle Toni. (Nadal is naturally right-handed.)
Another Nadal rite is to make eye contact with his family prior to the start of a match. Once the match starts, however, he never looks at them again.
"You have to cage yourself in protective armor, turn yourself into a bloodless warrior," he says. "It's a kind of self-hypnosis, a game you play, with deadly seriousness, to disguise your own weaknesses from yourself, as well as from your rival."
A gladiator on the court, Nadal admits to being forgetful, stumbling and sensitive off the court. After losing to Federer at Wimbledon in 2007, he wept on the floor of his dressing room for half an hour.
And when his parents separated in 2009, it had a devastating effect on his game; the home where they all lived (and Nadal still does) was irrevocably changed without father Sebastian Nadal. (Ultimately, the ultimate divorce was friendly; both parents are regularly seated in Nadal’s box.)
Many say Nadal takes after his father, who is not an athlete. A hugely successful businessman, Sebastian Nadal often tends to even the smallest details on Nadal's tours, looks after his son's business affairs and "has the leader's instinct to appear calm and composed the more dire the circumstances become," Rafa Nadal says.
One such circumstance occurred in 2005, when Nadal was diagnosed with a defective tarsal scaphoid, a bone in his left foot that had begun to cause him excruciating pain. Doctors warned the 19-year-old that he might never play tennis again.
"It was my father who gathered his wits first and sought to take control of the situation," Nadal says. His father was not only "confident we'd find a solution," he reminded his son the doctor had said the injury might be career threatening.
In the end, it was Sebastian who came up with the idea of having a shoe constructed with a cushioning element in the sole that would allow Nadal to continue to play his forceful brand of tennis.
Special shoes and a series of painful injections by a foot specialist eventually got Nadal back on court, although he still has to deaden his left foot prior to matches.
Four months later, when he finally entered a tournament again, Nadal says he experienced intense euphoria, "while understanding at the same time more clearly than ever before that the athlete's life is short, and can be cut shorter at any moment."
Coming near to "tennis death," he says, "I had stared the end of my career in the face [and] the experience, awful as it had been, had made me stronger mentally, given me the wisdom to see that life—any life—is a race against time."
Meanwhile, he continues to train harder than ever, his newest rival breathing down his neck. Still, Rafael Nadal can hardly be counted out of the game just yet—not even when it comes to the fearsome Novak Djokovic.